Virtual Events, Real Advancement

This post first appeared on Risk Management Magazine. Read the original article.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses to go remote,
professional development activities like conferences, networking events and
education sessions have also shifted into virtual venues. Some of this shift
will likely outlast the pandemic, making the skills to manage and maximize
these opportunities critical for professional development moving forward.

“Since the start of the pandemic, many of us have been
confined to our homes and immediate family, and virtual meetings have been the
only way to interact with friends, business associates, and colleagues,” said
Will Gilchrist, senior member and chapter programs manager at RIMS. “These
virtual meetings, while a nuisance to some, have been a lifeline to others.
Virtual events have done wonders in bringing people together across the country
and have enabled people who might be confined to their homes to branch out and
regain some normalcy.”

Gilchrist has hosted over 150 virtual events for members of
RIMS, the risk management society, since the pandemic’s onset in North America.
To keep members engaged with the organization and each other, RIMS has offered
webinars, topic-specific virtual roundtables, networking meetings, social
gatherings, large-scale virtual conferences, mentoring roundtables and
legislative meetings with government officials. The organization has also
reimagined its annual conference as RIMS LIVE 2021, a fully virtual event
spanning two weeks of educational and networking events from April 19-30.

While these remote connections may be a necessary
substitution now, the virtual technology currently being adopted will
undoubtedly remain a part of the business experience long after the pandemic.
In The Next Normal Arrives: Trends That Will Define 2021—and Beyond,
consulting firm McKinsey reported, “The effective use of technology during the
pandemic—and the economic constraints that many companies will face for years
after it—could augur the beginning of a long-term structural change in business
travel.”

Once COVID-19 is sufficiently contained around the world and
people can return to gathering in person, virtual meetings and events
technology may instead take on the role of enhancing rather than replacing
in-person events.

“The possibilities with virtual and hybrid events are
limitless,” said Stuart Ruff-Lyon, vice president of meetings and events at
RIMS and 2020 chair of the business event professionals association PCMA. “For
example, PCMA’s Convening Leaders annual meeting was a virtual experience that
incorporated small group ‘hubs’ where people gathered, safely, to watch the
content together. Because Asia is more open than the United States, the main
hub was in Singapore, where a few hundred ASEAN event professionals gathered to
see keynotes and even a hologram of the CEO delivering his speech. It was an
innovative event experience, and shows the future of events—all events will be
hybrid in the future and will offer both in-person and virtual experiences.”

In any form, learning how to navigate these virtual
experiences and get the most out of such opportunities will be a critical
professional development skill for years to come. 

Broader Access to Better, More Global Experiences

Virtual meetings and events can offer more opportunities to
people who face limitations from geography, mobility, budget or travel time.
“The biggest pro is breaking down the barrier to attend by eliminating travel
and expense costs,” Ruff-Lyon said. “Events are attracting new and diverse
audiences by being virtual, which represents growth when we return to face-to-face.”

Virtual events and networking are also providing ways for
organizations to reach new audiences, enrich their offerings or engage more
diverse talent. This has been particularly beneficial for rising risk
professionals, according to international insurance fraternity Gamma Iota
Sigma. “While virtual engagement can’t always take the place of face-to-face
engagement, it does allow for increased access,” said Alyssa Bouchard, vice
president of industry engagement at GIS. “Virtual conferences have lower
registration fees in many cases. They have no associated travel costs or
commitments. For some, the lack of business travel or daily commutes in our
virtual environment means more time in the day. Collectively, this creates a
big opportunity for rising risk professionals to pursue career development
opportunities that might not have previously been an option but are now right
in front of them—literally.”

She added, “It is a great time for rising risk professionals
to participate in industry conferences and events to expand their industry
knowledge and networks.”

Hosting events for a broader base of participants can help
organizations expand their events or increase their brand recognition in other
markets. For attendees, this enhanced global access can also add more diversity
and strength to the networking opportunities and content these events provide.
“Virtual events pre-record a lot of content for a consistent, polished
experience,” Ruff-Lyon said. “This enables event organizers to use speakers from
remote parts of the world, to build better, more global content.”

Companies participating in such events can also tap into a bigger talent pool, which may offer opportunities to fill talent gaps or meaningfully advance diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. For example, virtual engagement has ­facilitated new Gamma Iota Sigma initiatives to reach out to diverse groups, and made it easier for minority participants to reach back. “GIS recently launched an HBCU [historically black colleges and universities] Engagement Initiative, allowing for engagement with over 100 new universities,” said executive director Grace Grant, who also shared many of the tips in the event day checklist (below). “By taking advantage of enhanced virtual connections, students and the industry are able to increase access and exposure across the world through much simpler and more affordable methods.”

The range of opportunities can help both organizations and
individuals develop a more robust network or generate connections in alternative
settings that are easier to fit into busy schedules. “While we all wish we
could see each other in person again, and screen fatigue has become a very real
issue, there is an opportunity for greater connectivity and to bring
individuals together who might not have otherwise had the same opportunity for
virtual networking and learning,” Gilchrist said. “Risk professionals in Los
Angeles can very easily join a chapter meeting or educational event in Dallas
one afternoon and then attend a virtual cooking class with colleagues in
Minneapolis that evening.”

14 Tips to Maximize the Value of Virtual Events

Virtual event opportunities are far easier to access and fit
into your schedule. However, they can also create new challenges for those
trying to take advantage. Networking and learning in virtual formats can be difficult—many
feel awkward when meeting strangers this way, or have a hard time tuning out
distractions and learning from afar.

Whether it is the admission price or the value of your time and attention, there are real costs to virtual events, and you want to get as much out of your investment as possible. These 14 tips and tricks can help maximize the value from your virtual experience:

1. Do your homework: To best allocate your time,
review the program and the ­platform being used before the conference begins.
If presentation materials are available, try to review these in advance to help
ensure you focus on sessions that are worth it, and that you use your time
during the session to ask questions that will truly advance the knowledge and
resources you already have. Look at the different formats of engagement
available, such as on-demand classes, live social events and different
networking tools. For example, RIMS LIVE 2021 is using an AI-powered networking
platform that will make relevant connections based on attendees’ profiles, so
spending the time to set one up will get the best results during the event.

2. Build a schedule: As part of the homework process,
identify the key sessions, networking opportunities and other events you want
to check out and make yourself a detailed schedule. Having this plotted out can
help ensure you hit everything you wanted to and gain as much value as
possible. It can also help you take a realistic look at what you want to
accomplish and how to allocate your time and energy—if sessions conflict, you
can assess which would be most helpful to attend live and start a list to look
up later for on-demand viewing. Want to focus on networking? Schedule time for
the virtual expo hall that will not bleed into your must-see classes or
keynotes. Also, consider the time you will need for stretching and getting some
fresh air, having a meal or tending to things at home, and explicitly schedule
those breaks in your day.

3. Diversify your virtual learning: Consider mixing
things up with a variety of event formats and subjects. “It’s always good to
expand your horizons and the wealth of topics offered in our virtual world
ensures that there is something for everyone,” Gilchrist said. “It’s also
important to unwind sometimes, and not every virtual event or session you
attend has to be content-heavy. Feel free to blow off a more education-led
webinar to grab a mixology class or do some virtual yoga. Also, keep in mind
that while these events are virtual, they still require a lot of attention and
energy. As with in-person meetings, don’t overload yourself. Try to grab some
time for yourself and either get outside or step away from your computer.”

4. Block off your calendar: Distractions are the
biggest challenge for virtual event attendees. “Participants need to block
their calendars, turn off their chats, and close their email,” Ruff-Lyon
advised. “If you want to get the best return on your investment, make time to
fully engage and participate during the event times, and eliminate or minimize
possible disruptions.” To ensure you have the time and space to commit to fully
engaging, block off your calendar the same way you would for an in-person event,
and let your team at work and anyone in your home know that you will be unavailable.
In a convention center or a meeting room, it is easier to tune out distractions
and focus on your surroundings. In virtual spaces, you need to account for
these challenges and think ahead about how to manage them.

5. Do a virtual walk-through: Many virtual event
platforms have rich features to replicate the in-person experience. Doing a
virtual walk-through can help you take stock of your options and increase your
comfort using them on event days. “It is important that meeting participants
learn and play the virtual platform the event uses,” Ruff-Lyon said. “Just like
when you arrive at a convention center, you have to find your place and the
locations. The same applies to virtual events—spend time navigating the site
and poking into every tab or section to make sure you fully understand the
features and capabilities of the platform.”

6. Tune in live: Finding the time to ­dedicate your
full focus can be hard, ­especially if taking advantage of opportunities to
attend events in other parts of the world. That being said, it is worth making
every effort you can to attend live rather than watching later. Chat functions
are widely available on different platforms for meetings and events, and may be
your primary chance to meet other attendees and ask the presenter questions.
“Show up and participate during the event times,” Ruff-Lyon urged. “Don’t wait
until after the event is over to view the content—instead, participate fully
during the event times to maximize your ability to network and engage with
speakers, exhibitors and attendees.”

7. Preview your video: Check to make sure you and
your background are looking your best, and look for any personal items that you
do or do not want in-frame. It is also helpful to focus on how you come across
in this format. Research shows that body language can make up as much as 70% of
our communication. Yet, with cameras largely cutting off around the shoulder
or—even worse—being shut off entirely, this critical channel is severed in
virtual formats, making it harder to send and receive body language messages.
This can exact a mental toll since we are wired to expect these messages and
are constantly looking for them to help contextualize interactions. According
to communication experts from the American Management Association, one of the
key contributors to so-called “Zoom fatigue” is that constant subconscious
effort to interpret and understand people’s cues on the other end of a call,
and having to do tremendous amounts of extra work to try to fill in the gaps.
To help connect with people in these new formats and to ensure your messages
are clear, it is critical to think about ways to overcome this issue when
communicating remotely.

8. Turn on your camera: “We’ve all be sitting in our
homes on virtual meetings for the last year and we can be a bit fatigued of
staring at each other through a screen, but it’s always better to interact in
some way with your attendees and your peers,” Gilchrist advised. “If you’re going
to be sitting at your computer for an hour anyway, take the opportunity to at
least say hello to everyone.” Ensuring you put a face on your participation is
­critical for fostering a sense of connection. Ideally, be on camera whenever
possible, or use a headshot when you are unable to do so.

9. Introduce yourself: Meeting new people in virtual spaces can feel awkward, but taking the chance and introducing yourself can really pay off. Tailor your introductions to the event or meeting you are attending and how much information is appropriate. “When you enter a ‘room’ or session, use the chat feature to introduce yourself and say where you are from,” Ruff-Lyon suggested. “Break the ice by adding what you are hoping to learn from the experience. You will be surprised by the number of responses and the new connections you will make.” 

10. Ask questions: People attend virtual events to
tap into expertise—be sure you take advantage. Particularly if the host or
presenter emphasizes the option, asking questions can liven up the session,
engage other attendees, and offer feedback for the presenter. There is a key
caveat, however: make sure you ask good questions. There is nothing more
frustrating than having others monopolize conversation, hijack the presentation
by offering their own opinions instead, or ask questions they could either
Google or read in the session materials. Be considerate of others and ask: Is
this ­something I could just look up? Is it a question or a comment? Is this
relevant to a broader audience? Is this something I should discuss separately?

11. Use the hashtags: Follow along on social media
and chime in on the events using the official hashtags. This can be a great
unofficial channel for networking with other participants, and can help
highlight your engagement in the industry. It also offers an easy way to learn
about the sessions you have not attended and may want to catch on-demand, if
offered.

12. Ask about on-demand and presentation documents: Check
in advance for the materials offered during and after the event. Many event
coordinators offer session recordings that can be watched on-demand, which can
come in handy if you have to leave a session early, want to catch sessions in
conflicting time-slots, or just want to go back and find a point of interest
after attending live. Many organizers also make their slides available so
attendees can follow along during the session or access after the event. This
can help alleviate the stress of taking notes and minimize the need to ask presenters
to go back or repeat themselves.

13. Take non-virtual notes: The sessions may be
virtual but the lessons should be real—and the notes should be too. Grab a
notebook and jot down your takeaways and questions for reference later.
Researchers believe that the physical act of writing improves memory and
processing, and you are less likely to get distracted by other activity on your
computer if you limit on-screen activity to the event itself.

14. Write a list of action items: While you have your notebook out, Gamma Iota Sigma’s team recommended dedicating a page to concrete next steps after the event. This could be individuals to follow up with, new connections to add on LinkedIn, or lessons learned from a session to share with your team when you go back to work. It can also be helpful to try to develop at least one actionable takeaway from every session you attend—think of one way you can apply the material in the next month and write that down as soon as possible. It will help you see the value in how you have spent your time, offer some great talking points to demonstrate that value to people within your organization, and help ensure you walk away feeling educated and empowered rather than overwhelmed by content and connections.

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